Learned Helplessness: A Cage Called Harassment

Trigger warnings: frank talk about sexual acts, sexual violence, harassment, animal mistreatment, stalking, depression and mental illness, and “slut shaming.”

This post is intensely personal/raw.

My therapist leaned forward a little.

“There was an experiment a long time ago, one of the first ones they had done regarding anxiety. They put a dog in a cage. This was a long time ago, obviously, before…”

“Before they had ethical guidelines, right?”

“Right.”

“The put this dog in a cage and put a board in the cage, splitting in half. On the side the dog was on, they gave it shocks. Obviously there was a whole other side the cage the dog could be on, but the dog didn’t know. First, the dog started freaking out from the shocks, panicking, looking for a way out. After a while though, they noticed that the dog would just lay down and ignore the shocks. It had accepted it’s fate and gave up. That’s what they called learned helplessness. It’s when the brain gives up, basically. The anxiety is still there, but it is mostly just giving up and rolling over.”

I sat back a little in the couch. I had just described the kind of “plane circling the tower” feeling I got sometimes after a particularly bad anxiety attack, where it felt my brain just had given up. The sadness, rather than frantic arm-flailing, that’d fill me when I had to deal with the same problem I had been shouldering for the last three years. I’d sit in WoW and just stare at the screen, or lie on the couch and look up at the ceiling.

—-

My story isn’t really different from anyone else’s, really. Harassment, especially against women,  always seems to read off the same script.

I knew someone pretty well in WoW a while back, middle of Burning Crusade. I know it isn’t the best way to approach this, but I think of myself as a lot stupider back then. A lot more trusting. Less of an inclusive, smart person too. I was emotionally and sexually involved with this friend (as much as you can be in World of Warcraft). We’d level alts together, hang out in cities. I was single and a young lady. We often talked about sex and love. I even had cyber-sex and phone sex with this guy. I have no shame about those things. It’s stuff I did with quite a few people back then. Funny how we don’t bat an eye with the idea of a man having several women but women have to be discreet, lest people think they are a “slut.” When it came time to ultimately get off the horse of being single, they were not the sort of person I was looking for (and I ended up dating someone else.) This was pretty much high treason to the “friend” and so began the 3+ year odyssey that is still going on today.

First it was accusations that I was a whore, a slut, a lying, cheating no-good woman. That broke his heart. That made promises I couldn’t keep. There were IMs and IRC messages and hurt feelings all around while we still were in contact with eachother – my friends were not spared this. I even had my private business plastered onto the realm forums but had no idea it was him. Level 1 alts would show up to throw more insults at me, some true, some not.  All it centered around the idea of shaming me for being sexual.

Posts of mine and my friend’s kept turning up missing too – report abuse feature and the new way of forums being moderated meant that most of us had entire threads/posts deleted and even moving up the penalty volcano rather quickly. A good chunk of my friends from that time period were permabanned just due to how many times they got reported by this guy (or his cohorts.)

This went on for a while and then went quiet. I pretty much cut the guy out of my life and thought it was over. Until someone poked me in-game one day to tell me I was saying strange things in Trade Chat. I didn’t have trade chat turned on back then (I still keep it in a seperate window even now) and jumped in to notice a character that was very much like my name and off by only one letter. I have a very recognizable, very unique name (which is really a terrible idea as far as internet security goes), and this person was impersonating me. Saying really disgusting things about my character in trade, offering to do sexual things for people. This went on for 3 days – I had to get GMs involved, despite them being very little help up until that point with the forum abuse stuff. It was all hours too and I’d get whispers from people saying I offered them cyber-sex, that I was fat, etc.

GMs thankfully take public channels very seriously and started to get the ball rolling in that way. However, it took my boyfriend pretty much going to Mike Morhaime himself and getting in touch with the senior community manager to actually get one GM assigned to me for the duration of this process. I won’t name names, but they are still one of the most helpful people I’ve ever met, even if it is just their job.

Cutting out most of the harassment out of game turned out to be an easier task sometimes than when it started going into real life. My friends and I were still getting strange anonymous IRC whispers, so I stopped going to that server. I blocked incoming queries. This part of the story gets a little fuzzy, because I mean, how many times can someone say something insulting and gross to you before it becomes your daily routine.

I had to lock down my Livejournal, my twitter, any social networking. Various reasons have forced me to remove Facebook, but that was mostly my own criticisms of privacy and Facebook than anything else.

I had to deal with this person’s school because he was very obviously using their school internet to harassment on wow forums, and on my blog Empowered Fire (which he found). Their campus police went to his dorm building and warned him. The harassment stopped…for a while. It never really stops, least not in my case. They call it escalation – the person is more bold, more risk-taking, and definitely more dangerous.

He came back with a vengeance and his school was not very helpful in that regard. I had pretty much shut him out of most of my life but he still had access to the blog I ran with my friend. We’d get floods of comments. I mean like hundreds every couple of days and no real way to stop it. I never wanted to blog again. We had one of our raid-mates install something that would block him specifically but he was smart enough to figure out how it worked. And even my friend’s sites were getting hit. It was the beginning of a very dark period in my internet life, as I felt I had no place to go without feeling threatened. I was fielding comments that were sexually violent – hoping I’d choke on semen, that my vagina would be stapled shut, that they’d rape me and force me to keep the baby and kill us both. That they wished me dead.

The police finally got involved, despite my first couple of attempts being ignored or misunderstood. A very helpful officer finally came to our house, saw the actual PILES of evidence I had collected, the very real rape threats, etc. He called up my harasser finally and the guy confessed. I thought this was the end of it, but he came back again, this time threatening to come to my house. Police issued a ticket. The dust settled for a little while.

I quit blogging at that point. I couldn’t wake up every day and try to write down my feelings. I couldn’t even tell any of our fans what had happened. I was too scared. I turned into a recluse. Anxiety took over my life. I felt like he was watching over my shoulder. I felt like anything I’d reveal about myself would just be used as fodder to mock me. I didn’t want to leave the house.

I thought things would be fine, but then the harassment on Twitter started up again. Not only was it me, but it was anyone I’d tweet at. He’d skim anyone tweeting at me and insult them, tell them I was a fat slut. He had specific things he’d say so that I’d know it was him, as if it could be anyone else.

Last year I went through the process of filing a restraining order. I had to appear in court and my harasser had to phone in (because he lives in another state). I had to listen him smugly talk to the court commissioner and deny things that I had proof of him saying. He eventually confessed to the court commissioner that he had told the cop the year prior that he had been harassing me. Court commissioner, despite not understanding anything about the Internet or how it works, granted me a 4-year restraining order. It is the longest one you can receive in my state. I felt like I had won.

Until an hour later when my stalker had started attacking my friends on Twitter.

I decided that month that I wasn’t going to let him stop me from speaking out and blogging, regardless. But to feel “safe” I decided to adopt a nickname. I’d set up a different Twitter name and not give out my information to anyone. I’d keep it separate from my “actual self.” It was working until this weekend. Suddenly the same slimy, awful comments began appearing on my blog. The Twitter messages did too. Suddenly, that little bubble that I thought I had hidden and circumscribed with protections was popped. My web admin, the ineffable Vitaemachina, pulled me aside and told me to take a couple days off from reading my blog, my twitter or my e-mail. This is why I had originally approached him about taking my blog off WordPress –  I had wanted much more granular control over who had access to my blog. I wanted very strong comment moderation, double verification, all that jazz. It didn’t mean I was protected from the world, but it mean I had much more armor on. Feminist bloggers are targeted by a lot of very unstable people and deal with threats and harassment even if they don’t have mentally unstable stalkers. So I went on hiatus for a couple days while I collected my feelings.

Then I talked to my therapist on Tuesdays. See, I have one. I’ve been seeing him since last year because I have a lot of problems with past trauma (including this) and anxiety. I know that a lot of bloggers in the WoW sphere have talked about their mental illnesses, and I feel like I could have talked about it, but to leave all of this out would have done myself and my audience a real disservice. As Oestrus reminded me, this is something that fits my blog in all aspects. It’s one thing to talk about feminism and the need for equality and safety (especially in the gaming world)  and ignoring that I was suffering my own very personal reasons for wanting any of that. And I am suffering. But that is what therapy is for.

I ruminated on what my therapist had said. In that moment I felt like the dog in that experiment. That’s what harassment and abuse does to you. It forces you back into your mind, into the darkness. After a while you stop feeling it as intensely and it just becomes “your life.” This is my life, my dearest readers. It is a life that deals with a disgusting, abusive, unstoppable sack of meat that calls itself human. I have to clear out my Twitter mentions list every day, I have to read hurtful, vile comments about my genitalia, my weight, my income level, my social class, my gender, everything. I spend my days feeling so angry at the world, and when not angry, upset or anxious. I have to do all the work in this situation and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that I have to be the one hurt. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not my fault. I want to cry and throw things and rip apart the entire Universe until it stops existing. I want to stop being a woman. There’s days I don’t want to be alive at all.

I want to tell you that this story has a happy ending, but it’s still going on. I’m not sure if there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me, but I’m working at it. I have a wonderful partner, I have friends and a huge support network. People love me. I have you guys, my fans. I have life and health (sometimes) and a roof over my head.

There’s just so many easy ways into a woman’s psyche in our stupid fucked up world. It’s “normal” to feel threatened, ugly, fat or that you are a “slut.” But we don’t deserve it. We especially don’t deserve it it on the Internet. People shouldn’t be allowed to use anonymity to read out of the book of sexist threats without impunity. I’d love to say that there’s things we can do, but I honestly don’t know what those are other than bringing it up to the surface and exposing it to the light. That’s how harassers and abusers keep you quiet – they make you feel cut off from your support network. They push you into a cage and hope you learn how to be helpless. And given how many other things we suffer on a regular basis, it’s easy to do just that. There’s no real “safe spaces” in a lot of ways, especially with how the law and social media has barely caught up to how sinister the Internet can be.

I guess I’m just here to say you’re not alone if you’re being harassed. You’re not alone in the slightest. There’s so many of us. Talk to your friends. Talk to a trusted person in your life. Talk to the police (though whether or not they understand is another thing entirely). Talk to someone. Get a blog. Get a Twitter. And if you need to, stay away from the shit that makes you feel awful. No one is going to make you feel bad for protecting yourself. It’s hard to wake up every day and feel strong enough to deal with it.  But for me? I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days…

I’m not going to be shamed into silence. I’m not going to stop blogging, I’m not going to stop yelling and screaming and throwing a fit. I let this asshole do it once, I’m not going to do it again. I’m not going to stop until I die. I owe it to everyone to be the strong one. I have to do this for me and for everyone else who can’t.

 

If you or someone you know is being harassed or stalked online, I will be posting a guide about dealing with it and reporting it.